Op-Ed: Lakewood: Let’s Put Things In The Proper Perspective

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(By Ezra Friedlander)

It’s summertime and once again the headlines are sizzling, this time with unfortunate news from within our own community in Lakewood New Jersey. As always, this forces us to do some soul searching, a cheshbon hanefesh if you will, hopefully with positive results. I am not here to comment on the particulars of this specific case or on the alleged misdeeds pertaining to government funded programs. I’m just offering a fresh perspective.

Everyone seems to have a strong opinion about the issue at hand, but really isn’t this all about a larger issue? Isn’t this just a small piece of the bigger conversation about the sustainability of our community? About creating affordable living, parnassah opportunities, and providing our children with a reasonably priced Torah education? Ultimately, these matters are not for us to decide but for our Rabbonim and Roshei Yeshiva – our da’as Torah — to guide us.

My purpose here is to respond to those who criticize and attack the fundamental integrity and trustworthiness of our community. And to point out how we, the Orthodox Jewish community, contribute to the societies in which we are living.

In no way am I condoning or justifying any illegal activity or misuse of government funds. I am merely suggesting that we, the people, have a right to critique how government policies are formulated and how laws are passed when we feel they are not being fair. As a Government Affairs consultant, I often have a front row seat from which I can observe the policy makers at work. Our laws are not G-d given from Sinai. They are formulated by mere mortals, and as such are sometimes imperfect and unfair.

What I find particularly objectionable is the wholesale condemnation and degradation of our community and its infrastructure. It’s an undisputable fact that the Orthodox Jewish community creates a level of vibrancy in every geographic area they inhabit. We bring with us a flourishing economy in terms of housing, retail, job opportunities, industry, commerce, and investment opportunities. This is true across the board and the level of wealth and value increases for everyone in the area.

Yes, there are perhaps those among us who enjoy a sense of entitlement and often allow for overcrowding because of poor planning in developing certain areas. And yes, there will always be those who bemoan the transformation of rural and peaceful areas with urban density and all the quality life issues that come along with it.

But the fact is that demographic changes happen all over. And communities change character. That’s a fact of life. It’s also a fact that a property bought decades ago for a paltry sum can now be sold for millions in areas where the Orthodox population is growing. And yet, those who are taking advantage of these opportunities are often the first and the loudest to complain about our community. At the end of the day, the economic boon to the area is indisputable and benefits everyone in one way or another.

Now to the issue at hand. By and large, our community is a net contributor. What do I mean by that? For starters, we don’t avail ourselves of public financing for our children’s education. In the tri-state area alone, hundreds of thousands of children are being educated without costing the taxpayer a dime. While there are, of course ancillary expenses, mostly in the realm of transportation and special education, in general the burden of paying for our children’s education rests upon us.

Let’s take this a step further. We have an endless array of volunteer and non for profit charitable organizations, a huge network of humanitarian aid that reflects our commitment to the most vulnerable in our community. All of this is being funded privately and not with government funds. Yet this is never properly acknowledged by government.

I recall a conversation I once had with Paul Ryan who was then the Chairman of the House Budget Committee and is today the Speaker of the House. We were engaged in a friendly debate about the SNAP food stamp program. At the time a proposal was being debated to decrease benefits. I suggested to him that members of our community, by virtue of our lifestyle, are having difficulty making ends meet and many rely on public assistance for sustenance. I explained how we are a ‘net contributor’ because we don’t take advantage of the public school system. . Often government allocates tens of billions of dollars to an aircraft carrier that will never be used, cancelling out any perceived ‘waste’ within social program. Perhaps they should consider this when deciding whether to direct funding to American families who are struggling to survive but may not be entitled to programs simply because an uninformed Congress has passed legislation that doesn’t make sense

Today we are faced with condemnation from every segment of society, and the anti semites of the world are smacking their lips with glee. But as someone who is aware of how public policy is formulated, let me present a different perspective. Perhaps it’s time for lawmakers to consider allowing struggling families in a slightly higher bracket to avail themselves of social programs if only because they do not make use of public education and other public services.

Let’s be more proactive in presenting our arguments. Let’s put the facts on the table, if only so that we won’t be viewed as an ‘insular’ community whose objective is to ‘rip off’ the government. Instead, let’s tally up the numbers. If we consider how many dollars we are contributing to the government, including high property and related taxes, as opposed to how many benefits we are receiving, it paints a whole different picture. The numbers don’t lie. They speak for themselves.

The conversation needs to be revisited, and perhaps a coalition should be built. Our laws are manmade and that means they can be remade when necessary. Because right now we are dealing with a very difficult situation where families who are legitimately in need can potentially be in fear of applying for funding. An entire community may now be treated as common criminals based solely on their dress, their zip code, and their appearance because of the negative fallout and the blanket condemnation of many in government and the authorities. And that’s unfair as well as un-American.

Government officials are not immune to public perception. They are out there. Laws and regulations are passed reflective upon the norms and behaviors of society itself. What was unacceptable ten years ago in now fashionable, and vice versa.

We have a fundamental responsibility to engage the opinion makers as well as the man on the street about the inherent goodness of our community. Let us not cower in fear. Instead, let us present the truth. Yes, we are in golus and our behavior should reflect that reality. But we are as American as apple pie and as such we should exercise our rights and engage in the democratic process.

We owe it to ourselves, to our children, and to our community, especially those who are struggling to survive.

Ezra Friedlander is CEO of The Friedlander Group a public policy consulting firm based in NYC and Washington DC.  He can be reached atEzra@TheFriedlanderGroup.com and on Twitter at @EzraFriedlander.

NOTE: The views expressed here are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of YWN.

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22 COMMENTS

  1. If the general ethos in this community is that making a parnassah is pas nisht, then saying that you’re a net contributor to the system doesn’t make sense. Those who have rich in-laws, OK, some of the money is coming from unzere, although how long can that last, if there will be fewer and fewer rich in-laws as more people are discouraged from working. And those without rich in-laws, forget it, they also don’t work necessarily, so where is their money coming from?

  2. The two issues are unrelated. Yes the Jewish community has helped lakewoods economy a lot but some people still are stealing from government programs which is geneva and cannot be condoned. This has nothing to do with the positive effect on the economy. Also from a goys perspective lakewood school district quality has gone down because of jews. This is a fact. Also the amount of people now living in lakewood creates traffic that didn’t exist before which also must annoy them. By these people stealing it gives them a chance to bring out all the issues they hate about us and causes an even bigger chilul hashem.

  3. To his credit, Ezra made some excellent points. The one with which I agree the most, is “the wholesale condemnation and degradation of our community and it’s infrastructure”. He is %100 percent right. There are unfortunately a lot of jealous haters out there who are constantly looking for opportunities to bash and criticize our community, wherever that might be. Lakewood, Williamsburg, Boro Park, Flatbush, Monsey, New Square, Monroe, etc… And more importantly, they have a special hate for people who have given over/dedicated their lives for Torah and klei kodesh. That has to be stopped & fought at every turn. Because of the egregious behavior of a minor few, one cannot condemn an entire community/people. As Ezra stated, the tremendous good that has come and continues to come from these communities far outweighs the very minor negative discretions.

  4. I draw the opposite conclusion of Freidlander . This is a reason to oppose more social programs. They create a societal reliance on them and they have a way of corrupting people . I know one the people who was arrested. I remember how scrupulously honest he was twenty five years ago. Even IF he is guilty I still think he has a sterling character in other areas. Were in not for programs it would be in ALL areas.

  5. Totally agree with Ezra.

    And smerel and teshivabachor123, please keep your shmutzga opinions to yourselves.

    Smerel, do u have access to the persons day to day expenses and struggles that you imply that on this he wasn’t honest??? ( it surprises me so much how much of the goyisher schmutz has infiltrated our brethren.

    To Ezra point, do you see all the cleaning ladies and their husbands who get paid cash being rounded up?
    They have all the programs plus tuition for many children paid for even though Most have never paid any taxes?

    Do you know what tuition cost the government per child every year? Try between $20,000 to $25,000. Do the math!

    According to the inflated numbers the FBI produced the cleaning ladies and the line would not be accused of Robbing in the millions but in the billions. Where is the outrage!!!

  6. The cleaning ladies are not living in million dollar homes and making millions of dollars per year. There is a fundamental difference. You can’t deny one looks much worse. Also cleaning ladies don’t make their living by claiming to be the gold standard of moral values as rabbis do. Y2r everyone can make mistakes and I was always taught to hate the behavior and not the person but condoning clearly criminal behavior does no good for anyone.

  7. smerel
    #1 It seems like your giving a pesak halacha. “This is a reason to oppose more social programs. They create a societal reliance on them and they have a way of corrupting people .” Did you ask daas torah? or is this your personal opinion and even if you did, was that for yourself or for those people you are referring to . ( and no I dont take and never did take A penny from the government ). So if it is your own personal feeling then abide by it ,but you cant tell other people what “corrupts there life ” ( and generalize It to everyone ) .THIS MY PERSONAL OPINION ! I am not implying in any way that if it is as the news says that would be totally wrong . Just to mention an interesting story , one of my neighbors had a similar story ( Im not going to go thru the whole ordeal) . The government said he was not entitled to benefits ( a 10,000.00 issue ) was 2 yrs in court , had two pay up 10,000.00 + + fines etc…. then a year later the money was returned to him they were so eager to him they overlooked his losses . See what I mean ( nope ,good to be judgmental). “Even IF he is guilty I still think he has a sterling character in other areas.” What does that mean!!! he is a GANEV with good what? , what is other area’s ? nobody is all bad or all good !! we are talking about the issue of ge’naveh +++. IF ITS SO … but its good to hear you can see a the good . I quote Reb Yisroel Salanter . Dont judge your friend until you yourself are in that position … ” “and in his position you can never be ” Everyone has there own characteristics and so on…. no two people the same . Im certinaly not the one to justify or not justify anyone.
    I dont know how old you are but Im a great grandfather , ( learnt my first 15 year in kollel) went thru life with many many health and business issues . Have seen the world in many different stages of my life .
    No hard feelings , Im just pointing out a different view.

    PS I hardly write on these comments , whats the point ? Only if you can bring Ahava and achdus between any yid in any shape or form ., even if he goofed and did something wrong. ( dont we all? its just not public all the time)
    and BS’D nobody will need any government assistance .

  8. I’m sorry, but I’m not at all sure what this article is saying.

    Is it saying that representatives of the frum community should convey to legislators and public officials that we are not all g’novim?

    Is it saying that, the many should not be tarred with the illegal actions of the few?

    Or is it saying something else?

    Can anyone clarify?

  9. Looking at this and all similar stories it is self evident that it’s coming from pure jealousy, as they’re saying on their own flyer “Jews are only 1.4% of the population and 48% of billionaires.

    Those billionaires as we know are mostly (maybe 90%) not religious Jews, so here you go again with this same age old trash of white race/David Duke/etc. propaganda that Jews are controlling the world and America and so on…

    Although the above points might be argued but you can clearly see on their own material what lays behind their uproar.

    That said, we do have a reason to be more careful, but all these chachomim giving right to these Anti Semites it’s just their self hatred and/or pain they have eating away inside from their youth because of some bad experience their Rabbeim or parents or someone else, i’d just suggest “go to your local therapist or doctor, these days they’re oftentimes covered by the insurance and don’t come here to hang your dirty laundry”.

  10. I think this is not the time to bring this up at all. This is not the point right now. Yes there is anti semitism and it’s really coming out of the wood work now. Yes, we are a wonderful community in many areas. Yes we, as a community have a very difficult financial reality. These issues should be brought up but at a different time. By voicing such opinions at this time, there appears to be, even if it’s just on a small scale, a degree of justification for these action. There is NO justification. Even if the system is unfair to us. We have a mindset in our community, which I won’t go into in a public forum, that MUST change. THAT is the issue that must be addressed. The other issues can be addressed at a different time.

  11. I would also like to add that this post reminds me of a child reacting to a punishment by saying, “It’s not fair. He was also doing it and you’re only picking on me!” So childiish and so besides the point. This is the way Golus works. The world out there doesn’t know about Golus so they are just acting the way they’re supposed to act. We, on the other hand, do know about Golus, and we should know that we are supposed to have squeaky clean behavior, above and beyond, so that we don’t bring about the ire of the world around us. They’re picking on us because that’s built into Golus. We’re supposed to stay under the radar so they don’t have anything to really hang their anti semitic hats on. (Not to mention, of course, that Geneiva is Ossur)

  12. It is true that everything today is very expensive. But a lot of yeshivish families only have one person working; usually the wife. Work is not a dirty word. When children come along, then husband and wife should work hard to make parnussah. There can be good learning in the evening and on Shabbos and on week ends. But if you need money to pay for your food and rent and electricity, then go out and get a JOB. Everyday in the morning davening, we daven for parnussah. Don’t look for a hand out. Because if you take money from the government, then your neighbor is paying for it. Someone has to pay for it.
    If you think the jobs are too low paying, then get some training and education in a higher field. Our yiden are smart. They have brains. Go learn a profession, a trade. When the HolocCaust survivors came to America, none of them took welfare. It was a shame to be on welfare. Look at us now! A shame.

  13. After 3 years of investigation, this was all the could find? No drug running; no arms/guns running; no racketeering;
    no uman trafficking; no child porn: no cigarette smuggling; no terrorist activity; cyber crimes or Identity theft. Give me a break…

  14. Keep whitewashing, all of you. Not enough that you couldn’t see this coming for miles, but when you are sent a clear message, keep talking about what a great place Lakewood is, with all the hundreds of gemachim etc. That’s what stupid people do. When they get a smack in the face they ignore it. Hashem sent a clear message. Wake Up! And that goes for all of you in Williamsburg, New Square, Kiryas Joel, Monroe, etc etc. We are not in Poland or Russia anymore. Our neighbors do not appreciate this behavior. Time to start following the Letter of the Law and the Spirit of the Law. Have a little Bitachon. Do you think that Hashem can’t provide for us without social programs? Get off the dumb programs that were not made for us but for African Americans and you will see that you will survive and even prosper. But Wake Up before something really bad happens.

  15. I’m sorry but the government laws don’t force us to have lavish weddings, support sons and son in laws in kollel (on a wide scale level), buy expensive sheitels, have expensive camps, and the list of self imposed expenses Goes on. in lakewood where people are struggling so much the average wedding hall costs over 20,000 to rent.

  16. “After 3 years of investigation, this was all the could find? No drug running; no arms/guns running; no racketeering;
    no uman trafficking; no child porn: no cigarette smuggling; no terrorist activity; cyber crimes or Identity theft. Give me a break…”
    Given that they were investigating benefits and welfare fraud it would be strange if they found any of the things you listed.
    Anyway, what’s your point? We should be left alone to commit fraud because we don’t commit violent crimes??

  17. YeshivaBochur123

    You obviously don’t know the people they accused, no if them have million $ homes nor did they make millions. One is very naive to think that the fake numbers the FBI puts out through media is anywhere remotely to the truth!

    This is a wich hunt on the yidden. That is why I brought out the cleaning ladies….

    If the government are such baalei chessed, why are they going after families who can barely make it. Let them go after the billions of fraud and waste that goes on in the government and throughout most of the public school System.

    When u see these inflated numbers you know these are trumped up charges, designed to look good in the papers. And that’s precisely why the media was called..

  18. To grepsoops

    Why am I being singled out for the question of is this Daas Torah?

    If you are Livishe it is well known that Rav Meir Stern (Rosh Yeshiva of Passaic) does not take money from the government for his Yeshiva and that he doesn’t allow anyone in his kollel to apply for programs, Not even when it is 100% legal because they lead to corruption. If you are chasidshe the Bluzever Rebbe (member of the Moetzes Gedolay H’torah) told people that one the main reasons he doesn’t open a Yeshiva is because of the Nisyon in Glatt Yosher it would give him.

    If you want a source from Chazel, Rashi says that the reason loafers are posul L’edus is because people who do not work for their money do not understand the severity of cheating someone else out of it.

  19. I know brain builders does quite well and I can also see the home values on the tax role. None of these people are what I or the government would consider poor. The programs are not set up for people who don’t qualify to take.

  20. Thank you for this priceless example of narcissism and insularity. The author, Mr. Ezra Friedlander, is a man whose business seems to be in large part focused on trading communal political support to legislators in exchange for government benefits for supplicants who deliberately choose and exalt lifestyles in which others most support them, their families and their institutions. Friedlander laughs and dismisses the thought that there might be other more appropriate needs for this money, for example, national security: Friedlander writes, ” (O)ften government allocates tens of billions of dollars to an aircraft carrier that will never be used, cancelling out any perceived ‘waste’ within social program”.

    I challenge Mr. Friedlander to point to a single U.S. Navy aircraft carrier that has never been used, especially since 9-11. In fact, Navy crews endure especially long deployments away from their families because there are so few carriers and they must be at sea for very long periods to protect the security of the United States, including Lakewood and Mr Friedlander. What do those sailors do on those deployments? Well, they may not have much time for learning Torah (so I guess they don’t deserve Friedlander’s respect or concern). On the other hand, they do launch aircraft to support American soldiers and Marines in Iraq, Afghanistan and other places, http://www.navy.mil/navydata/ships/carriers/cv-why.asp.

    Perhaps Mr. Friedlander should facilitate a US military recruiting event at his favorite full-time kollel so the learners could enjoy the benefits of military service where (he apparently believes) they will lounge about and do nothing? And perhaps if he hasn’t yet served himself, he’ll be the first to sign up?